Every now and then, the Irish speaking/teaching/learning world seems to explode over the issue of dialect.
It’s a subject that people can get pretty passionate about, and one that can be pretty intimidating to new learners, especially when purists imply (or say outright) that, if you’re not speaking a traditional dialect, you’re not speaking “true Irish.”
First, some background
Yes, it’s true. There are different dialects of Irish. Three main dialects (Munster, Connacht, Ulster) and a laundry list of sub-dialects.
If this seems like a daunting thought, it really shouldn’t. These are dialects, not different languages. If you learn one, you can understand (and be understood by) speakers of another, especially if you make a habit of listening to natural, spoken, Irish on a regular basis while you’re learning.
We talk a bit more about this situation (and why it shouldn’t worry you as a learner) in these posts (links will open in a new window):
I guess you can tell, it’s an issue a lot of people ask about!
A strange fixation
Why the fixation on Irish dialects? Every language has dialects. As an American who grew up on the west coast, I speak English differently from my friends in New York, North Carolina, London, and Galway.
Most of the time we don’t even think about it, other than to chuckle, now and then, about the differences (the phrase “separated by a common language” comes up fairly frequently). Sometimes I have to remind myself that what I mean when I say “I’m wearing a jumper” is very different from what my English friends might envision.
(Just in case you’re not familiar with the terms, American “jumper” = English “pinafore dress.” English “jumper” = American “sweater.” The same distinction exists in Ireland.)
Searching for common ground
What distinguishes Irish is that, unlike other modern languages, it never developed a naturally agreed upon “middle dialect.”
Language is about communication. In the natural course of a language’s development, when areas in which different dialects are spoken come together, a sort of “middle dialect” grows up along the borders, where people interact.
A natural feature of communication
Our ears are attuned to the subtleties of language, and, when we encounter people who speak differently than we do, there is a natural tendency to adapt our own speech to theirs, and vice versa.
If you’ve ever spent a long time in a region with a dialect different from your own, only to return to your home region and hear people exclaim that you’ve acquired an “accent,” you’ve experienced this phenomenon first-hand.
And chances are, you’ve picked up more than an accent. You’ve almost certainly picked up regional expressions as well (it’s been 14 years since I moved back to California from North Carolina, and I still say “y’all”!).
On a national scale
As regions unite to become a nation, something of a national “middle dialect” tends to begin to develop. This is especially true in our modern world, where ease of travel, as well as such modern modes of communication as television, radio, and the internet, make communication between far flung regions a daily necessity.
Chances are, if you’ve ever studied one of the more mainstream languages, you learned one of these “middle dialects,” at least initially.
In the case of Irish, unfortunately, this natural progression didn’t happen — at least not on a national scale.
There are various reasons for this, but the biggest culprit was almost certainly the devastating famine known in Ireland as An Gorta Mór: The Great Hunger.
At a time when other nations were beginning to move toward modernization, Ireland, already occupied by a foreign power, lost around 1 million people, most of them Irish speakers, to starvation and disease. Another million escaped death by emmigrating. Others migrated to the cities, where speaking Irish was no advantage.
By the time the famine was over, Irish was, for the first time, no longer a majority language in Ireland. Further, the language came to be isolated in Gaeltachts (Irish-speaking regions) that were often separated from each other by the rapidly growing Galltacht (English-speaking region).
This made the likelihood of the existing dialects coming together naturally to form a “middle dialect” much more remote than might have been otherwise.
So what’s a poor learner to do?
So this brings us back to the question that arises just about every time someone sets out to learn Irish: “Which dialect should I learn?”
If you’re a follower of this blog, if you’ve followed the links above, or if you’re a Bitesize member, you already know our answer to that question, which is, quite simply “don’t worry about it. Just learn Irish, and learn it well. The rest will follow.”
If you have a personal or family connection to a particular region of Ireland and want to focus on that dialect, that’s just fine too. But you shouldn’t let that stop you from getting started on learning the basics, even if it takes you a while to find resources for your chosen dialect.
Remember, these are dialects, not different languages! You can start off learning a particular dialect, or, as most learners do, a mixture of dialects, and specialize later, if that’s what you want.
For a new learner, this is such a non-issue, I’m often shocked at just how often it comes up.
I think part of the problem may be that some people out there are what I call “dialect purists.” And sometimes they can go quite a bit overboard.
I’ve heard people say that you’re not speaking “authentic Irish” if you’re not speaking one of the traditional dialects. To that, I can only say “hogwash” (actually, I can think of a few other things I might say, but if I said them you might not let your kids read my blogs anymore!).
Don’t get me wrong: I see great value in preserving the traditional dialects. They give the language incredible richness, as well as a link to its past. And, of course, they represent the day-to-day speech of the people of the Gaeltacht!
I also think it’s vitally important for learners of the language to work on reproducing the basic sounds of the language correctly, as well as to practice listening to speakers from all over Ireland, so that they will understand, and be understood by, native speakers of all dialects.
This takes some practice, and it’s a step that some learners, admittedly, like to sidestep. You don’t have to be perfect, and you shouldn’t let concerns about pronunciation keep you from speaking, but you do always want to be working toward good pronunciation by listening to and emulating good speakers.
Looking to the future
The dialects are a rich link to the Irish language’s past, but if we insist on keeping the language enshrined in the Gaeltacht, a virtual museum piece, I’m afraid it won’t have much of a future.
If Irish is to recover from the devastation of the famine, people outside of the Gaeltacht need to be speaking it, using it, and making it their own.
And yes…this will mean people speaking a mixture of dialects. It will also mean children being brought up in the language by parents who are not themselves native speakers and being educated in schools by Irish speakers from regions other than their own. This is really the only way the language can grow toward that “middle dialect.”
Not an excuse
This should not, of course, be taken as an excuse for learning poor Irish. I’ve heard learners say things like “it’s OK if I pronounce “loch” as “lock”…that’s just my accent.” I’ve heard people jam Irish words together using English syntax and justifying it as “growing the language by giving it new expressions.”
Sorry folks…THAT’S not OK. Learners should, as much as possible, adapt their accent to the language, not vice versa. It’s a process, and you’re not going to start out saying everything correctly (and, if you’re an adult learner, you will almost certainly always have an accent), but it’s a goal you should always be striving toward.
And while new expressions will most certainly arise (and should!) — and, sadly, will also almost certainly include some Béarlachas (Anglicization) — that shouldn’t be an excuse for not knowing how to construct an Irish sentence correctly. As a wise person once said, “you have to know the rules to break ’em.”
Summing it all up
I said it above, and I’ll say it again: Don’t obsess about dialects. Just learn Irish. Learn it as well as you can. Use it whenever you can, even if it’s far from perfect.
Take every opportunity to listen to native speakers from different regions, and always strive to improve.
If all of us who love this beautiful, ancient, and — thank God! — still living language will only do that, without letting ourselves get sucked into the “dialect war,” I think Irish has the potential to have a very bright future indeed.
Did you find this post interesting?
Where do you stand on the issue of dialects in Irish? Let us know your thoughts below!